Towards the end of his highly successful secular career as a painter in Toledo, Juan Sánchez Cotán turned towards the Spanish still-life tradition of Bodegónes (a painting of the contents of a larder or pantry), and in doing so created some of the most memorable and mysterious still-lifes in the history of art.
In marked contrast to the still-lifes of the Nederlands and Italy with their tables replete and overladen with all manner of extravagant, expensive delicacies, Sánchez Cotán’s paintings are austere, almost severe. The objects portrayed are limited in number and are of a humble everydayness. They are either perched on bare grey ledges or hanging from strings (a method prevalent at the time to stop food from rotting and out of reach of pests), without a beginning that we can see, and set against a stunning use of negative space, an intimate almost mystical velvety blackness. None of the objects touch or intersect, they retain their own unique distinctiveness in space. The positioning is geometric, especially the perfect parabolic curve described by Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, rendering the paintings almost abstract in spite of the baroque realism that verges on illusionism. This is still-life as an aid to the contemplation of God’s glory in all his works, especially the mundane and frequently overlooked.
In 1603 Sánchez Cotán closed up his Toledo workshop and renounced the world to join the Carthusians, a monastical order with a strong commitment to solitude and silence.
Juan Sánchez Cotán is believed to have painted 12 still-lifes in total, however only 7 have survived to the present day. Above and below are six works that represent bodegónes perfected by this master.
During the period when Baroque reigned supreme, overt eroticism all but disappeared from Western Art. It would take the emergence of Rococo, the florid, playful and frankly somewhat sluttish younger French sister of Baroque, to take art back into the boudoir.
Francois Boucher was one of the leading lights of Rococo and enjoyed the patronage of the prime mover of the style, Madame de Pompadour, the Official Chief Mistress of King Louis XV. As well as mythological genres scenes featuring Venus he painted two odalisques stripped of all allegorical trappings, the L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 and the L’Odalisque Blonde from 1752.
France was ongoing a vogue for the mysterious, exotic East during the Ancien Regime. Several libertine novels including Denis Diderot Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon Fils La Sopha (The Sofa) are set in fantasy Oriental lands, partly to give full reign to the imagination but also to disguise the political satire on the luxuriant and decadent Court of Louis XV. Part of the attraction, for men anyway, were the stories of odalisques; mistresses or concubines in a harem.
Boucher’s L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 was reportedly a portrait of Madame Boucher , which led Diderot, Encyclopedist and somewhat risque writer of the above-mentioned Les bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse (The Nun)to state that Boucher was prostituting his wife. L’Odalisque Blonde is a portrait of the courtesan Marie-Louise O’Murphy. King Louis XV was so taken with this painting that he arranged for Marie-Louise to become a petite maitresse (lesser mistress). At least one of her children was the King’s.
Along with a very sweet tooth I share with the Marquis De Sade a quasi-mystical obsession with numbers. Certain numbers that have cropped up recently suggested a piece on the 18th century libertine tradition in French which the Divine Marquis radically re-envisioned at its culmination.
Originally the term libertine was used to describe political opponents of Calvin in Geneva, and went on to develop connotations of atheism and dangerous free-thinking. However by the 18th century the definition had narrowed to describe someone who was a sexual adventurer and debauchee. In the narrow homogeneous confines of French aristocratic circles in the Ancien Regime there flourished a literature which was entirely dedicated to examining the erotic manoeuvres and cynical mores of a fashionable society that pursued pleasure at all costs yet had to hypocritically maintain face .
Several novels including Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon fils La Sopha (The Sofa) transposed the setting to Oriental locations to disguise the political satire of the court of Louis XV. Others were less cautious and set their novels in a contemporary setting with thinly veiled portraits of famous influential figures; the resulting scandals ruined careers and damaged reputations. Laclos the author of the masterpiece of libertine fiction and to my mind the greatest novel ever written, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liasions) never escaped the notoriety that the book brought him; he unjustly became the byword for cynicism and Machiavellian scheming.
One of the central features of the libertine novel is the conflict between sense and sentiment that readers of Jane Austen will be familiar with. However unlike Austen they resolve themselves as an unsentimental education where the hero or heroine is taught the ways of the world and learns how to exploit others for their sensual gratification. As the prophet of the enlightenment Voltaire noted ‘Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures’, and the aristocrats portrayed are above all rational creatures.
During their education, which always involves seduction and a subtle corruption the characters are taught about the moment. The moment is a key concept in libertine philosophy, it is when the object of desire is most susceptible to seduction. The newly minted libertines are made aware of when the moment is approaching, how to take full advantage of the moment and even how to manufacture the moment in someone who is inimical to seduction. The classic novels of sexual education are Crebillon fils Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit ou Mémoires de M. de Meilcour (The Wayward Heart and Head or the Memoirs of M. de Meilcour) and the Marquis De Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir ou Les instituteurs immoraux (Philosophy in the Boudoir or The Immoral Teachers). De Sade of course is notably more extreme than his predecessors and combines elements of the Gothic and Baroque while pointing forward to Romanticism and Decadence.
In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful, daring young widow Judith (feminine form of Judah), distressed by her fellow Jews lack of faith in God to deliver them from the Assyrian conquerors, ingratiates herself with the General Holofernes. Having gained his trust she is admitted into his tent where he is lying in a drunken stupor. With the help of her loyal maid she proceeds to decapitate Holofernes and shows the severed head to an awe-struck crowd of her fellow-countrymen. The Assyrians demoralised by the loss of their leader retreat and Israel is liberated from the foreign threat.
The story of Judith was a popular source of art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. The Symbolists interpenetration brought the perverse and sadistic elements to the forefront. The great Austrian Symbolist painter and Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt’s (The Succubus) JudithI of 1901 was the cause of considerable scandal when first exhibited. The focus of the painting is Judith, only a part of the decapitated head of Holofernes is shown and even that is regulated to the bottom right-hand corner, beneath Judith’s exposed breast. With an expression of rapt depravity Judith caresses the head, all set against a ornately gilded, Art Nouveau decorative background.
An interesting comparison with Klimt’s Judith is with two masterpieces from the Baroque period on the same subject, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes circa 1599 and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620. Here the paintings are concerned with the act of murder itself. Caravaggio who led a tumultuous life and would die on the run after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, manages to convey with his trademark chiaroscuro all the tension and ambivalence Judith must have felt as she saws through the neck of Holofernes, while Gentileschi’s Judith surpasses Caravaggio (she was the most famous of the Caravaggisti, followers of Caravaggio) in showing the bloodiness and sheer physicality of the scene. It has been interpenetrated as a vivid rape revenge fantasy.